Collection RBSC-ARC-1724 - Otto Cohnheim collection

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Otto Cohnheim collection

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  • Variations in title: Previously known as Kestner Collection

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Physical description

45 cm of textual records
1 cartographic record
1 drawing

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Name of creator


Biographical history

Otto Cohnheim, who later changed his name to Otto Kestner, was born 30 May 1873 in Breslau, Germany. He received his medical education in Leipzig and Heidelberg, graduating in medicine in 1896. In 1897 he was appointed Privat-dozent (lecturer) in the Physiological Institute at Heidelberg, an appointment resulting from a paper on absorption from the stomach and intestine. His greatest achievement was the discovery of an enzyme responsible for breaking peptones down to free amino-acids, which he called “erepsin” from a Greek word meaning “I break down”. After this discovery he was promoted to ausserordentlicher Professor (senior lecturer) at Heidelberg, where he also stood in as head of the department when the head of the department fell ill. In 1913 he was appointed ordentlicher (full) Professor at the newly founded Institute of Physiology in Hamburg. It was at this time that Cohnheim, at the request of his mother, changed his name to Kestner, a name which was in his mother’s family.

Otto then served as a medical officer in the field during the Great War, putting his career in Hamburg on hold. In 1919 he took the appointment at Hamburg, becoming the director of the institute. He continued to do extensive research into the physiology of the kidney, general metabolism, and the physiology of marine animals, all of which he published on extensively. He lectured in Italy and the USA and worked for a time in Russia with Pavlov.

Due to his Jewish birth name of Cohnheim, he was investigated by the Gestapo. His post at the Institute of Physiology in Hamburg ended in 1934 when he was abruptly dismissed without compensation. Otto was forced to sell much of his family’s possessions and escaped with his family to Britain. In 1940 he was interred for six months on the Isle of Man as a potential enemy alien. After being released Otto worked for several institutions in Britain including the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen and the Royal Sea-bathing Hospital at Margate. In 1942 he went to Cambridge where he became a member of Downing College and was associated with the School of Agriculture.

Otto returned to Hamburg to fill his former post as director of the Institute of Physiology. He died in Hamburg in 1953.

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Biographical history

The wife of Otto Cohnheim.

Custodial history

Material was part of the Woodward Memorial Library Collection. The letters and papers were transferred to Rare Books and Special Collections in 2013.

Scope and content

The collection illustrates Otto Cohnheim’s personal and professional life while he lived in Germany and Scotland. The personal material includes correspondence with or about family members while the professional material includes letters, laboratory notes, and papers to do with his physiological studies.

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Material is not in original order. Collection arranged according to correspondents and material type. Files are labelled according to correspondent.

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  • German

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RAD compliant finding aid prepared by: M. Hunter, June 2015.

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